Last week, a prominent academic oncologist named Dr. Vinay Prasad published an article in MedPage Today entitled “Applying Skepticism to Medical Skepticism“. (I know, I know, the whole “skeptical of skeptics” or “skeptical of skepticism” bit is a tired, unoriginal, and unimaginative trope that never ceases to irritate skeptics and supporters of science-based medicine when we see it.) In a clear shot across the bow of this blog, though, the eminent Dr. Prasad’s article was subtitled: “Debunking should focus on areas most in need — which might not be homeopathy”. Further making it clear that he was referring to us and those like us here at SBM who devote a lot of time to deconstructing the bad science and pseudoscience behind a lot of claims of alternative medicine and the antivaccine movement, Dr. Prasad doubled down on an analogy he’d made before, that of “dunking on a 7′ hoop”:
A year ago, I got myself in trouble on Twitter. I tweeted a video of a man dunking on a basketball hoop. The young man took a big dribble and leapt into the air. The camera panned outward. He appeared to soar, defying gravity like Lebron James. He raised the ball up high and brought it down in a monster jam on the hoop. The camera continued to pan outward, and it became clear — the hoop was not the regulation 10-foot rim, but something much smaller. The man appeared to be dunking on a 7-foot hoop. My tweet went something like this “Dunking on alternative medicine is like dunking on a 7-foot hoop; let’s raise it back up to 10 feet.”
Basically, the whole thesis behind his post and analogy is that “dunking” on alternative medicine is so easy (like LeBron James dunking on a 7′ hoop) that it’s a waste of a physician’s intellectual firepower to bother with it. Instead, argues Dr. Prasad, we skeptics who’ve been “debunking” homeopathy should do what he does and devote our intellectual firepower to bad science in medicine and to conventional medical interventions for which the scientific evidence is not robust. In his post, he basically seems to think that all we at SBM and other skeptics do is “dunk on” homeopathy, jade eggs, and other Goop-like nonsense marketed to people with, as British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb once put it describing homeopathy, “more money than sense.”
Of course, the first time that Dr. Prasad made his argument on Twitter and in an episode of his podcast, which was late last year, a number of skeptics, myself included, responded by pointing out that we do, in fact, also do exactly what he said we should be doing and that dissecting clinical trials of various alternative medicine requires very much the same sort of skillset that dissecting any other clinical trial does, plus the additional skillset of knowing the alternative medicine claims and why they are pseudoscience. Sadly, Dr. Prasad revealed the disingenuousness behind his attacks by portraying such arguments as a tacit admission that we “medical skeptics” actually agreed with him that what he does is so much more important than what we do. Even so, ultimately he deleted a whole lot of those Tweets, for whatever reason, and blocked a lot of us on Twitter.
Why Dr. Prasad decided now to double down on his original analogy, who knows? What Steve Novella and I do know is that Dr. Prasad’s argument and dismissal of what skeptics do with respect to unscientific claims are particularly irresponsible during a pandemic in which unscientific claims about COVID-19, rooted in conspiracy theories, have arguably led to many tens of thousands more deaths by provoking uncertainty, distrust, and outright fear and hostility over masks, social distancing, and other public health interventions, and, now that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has been granted emergency use authorization by the FDA and the Moderna vaccine is likely soon to follow suit, about vaccines. That’s why we wrote rebuttals on Friday:
- “Skeptical of Skepticism regarding Medical Skepticism“, in which Steve Novella basically makes fun of the “skeptical of skepticism” trope in the title of Dr. Prasad’s article before explaining how Dr. Prasad goes wrong and observes that, when it comes to what skeptics do (and even how pervasive alternative medicine and antivaccine claims are), Dr. Prasad does not know what he is talking about.
- “Dunking on a 7′ hoop, or: Refuting Dr. Vinay Prasad’s attack on medical skepticism“, in which a certain alter-ego does the same, only with more—shall we say?—insolence.
As editor of SBM and someone who has spent the last two decades dealing with harmful pseudoscientific varieties of medicine, such as cancer quackery and the antivaccine movement, all I can say is that it is very depressing to see that, 24 years after Carl Sagan’s death, academics like Dr. Prasad still don’t “get it,” to the point of still viewing science communication about things that they don’t consider intellectually challenging with such contempt and disdain. It’s particularly frustrating how, during a pandemic that has killed close to 300,000 Americans and still rapidly counting, Dr. Prasad can’t see the connection between “debunking” homeopathy and combatting the sort of conspiracy theory-based pseudoscience, misinformation, and disinformation that is contributing to making that death toll continue to climb. Dr. Prasad and we skeptics should be natural allies, as our areas of focus are complementary. It’s a shame he doesn’t see it that way.